The kinship of kneidlach
Don’t you dare open the pot while they are boiling; use a kochleffel (traditional cooking spoon) and a bit of this and a bit of that; talk softly, and take off your shoes; play music while cooking.
There might be divergent opinions on the best method to use when making the perfect kneidlach, but one ingredient is always the same: the love with which this tradition is passed from generation to generation.
The first time Mish Berkowitz, now aged 81, made kneidlach was in 1961. She was newlywed, and got the recipe from a fellow teacher at King David school.
“[My colleague] promised to teach me to make the best kneidlach in the world, so she gave me the recipe, and I went home and tried it.”
What was her husband’s opinion of her first attempt? “Oh, he said he loved them! But we had been married for only three months,” she says with a smile.
Indeed, they must have been truly delicious, for they have been passed down four generations.
Berkowitz’s daughter, Pam Tauby, relishes this sense of continuity, recalling how as a little girl, she shared the privileged duty with her sister of being designated as the pot lifter for this prestigious preparation.
In her own married life, Tauby continued the kneidel tradition, albeit in slightly different circumstances.
“We swapped to the Chabad tradition of having matzah balls only on the last day of Pesach,” she says. This is a Chassidic “stringency, rather than a rule” that is related to the modern matzah manufacturing process.
The Chassidic practice is to ensure that the matzah doesn’t get wet in order to mitigate against pockets of flour within the matzah possibly turning it into chametz (foods not permitted on Pesach).
As such, their tradition is to make kneidlach on the eighth night, when the Torah mitzvah of keeping the seven days of the festival have been fulfilled. They also make a point of eating it during this last part of Pesach rather than afterwards to show unity with other Jewish people who do eat it for the whole chag. “It’s to show that we don’t think we are holier than you; we just have a different convention.”
Tauby, herself the mother of four daughters, says it took her sons-in-law, who didn’t come from a Chabad background, some adjustment to get used to this waiting period.
However, Brendan Moore, who is married to her daughter, Kayla, says it has actually brought a special dimension to the chag. “While it was strange when I first experienced it, actually now the build-up to the last day is like a beautiful send-off to Pesach,” he says.
Kayla says she started making the recipe only a few years ago, nervous to live up to the gravitas of its reputation. “It was this big moment! Here was something that has been passed down, and now I had better make it properly. The first time was perfect. I was so proud of myself, I even have a video of serving it!”
Now, the family revel in the newest generation’s engagement with the chag. “I love seeing Pesach through my children’s eyes. We see it in a whole new light,” says Kayla.
Indeed most recently, “Bobbie Mish” taught her recipe to two of her 14 great-grandchildren, Gilad, aged five, and Liya, three. The pair have self-styled themselves as “gourmet chefs” complete with personalised aprons and a homemade cooking vlog!
The final verdict after their latest episode featuring Bobbie and her kneidlach? A definitive “yummy” from Gili, and a big thumbs up from Liya.
When it comes to the great big customary cook-off of Pesach, Mary Kropman, 83, also revels in the involvement of younger generations, which in her case consists of 13 grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren.
Following the tradition of her own mother, who arrived in South Africa as a young woman from Belarus, Kropman doesn’t just make her own kneidlach, but also homemade chrein (horseradish), ptcha (jellied meat), even wine.
“I love it when my grandchildren and now great-grandchildren come and help me. About six weeks ago, they helped me to make the wine and the great-grandchildren were laughing all the way through. It was great! We were four generations making it together.”
Her granddaughter, Rochie Isaacson, has warm memories of her time with Kropman. It’s an experience now passed down to her own children, who flourish under Kropman’s mentorship.
“Days before Pesach, I would go to bobba and wash hundreds of eggs to ‘clean’ them for Pesach,” reminisces Isaacson. “Thereafter, I would help bobba make about 200 kneidlach for the whole family. Bobba cooks with love and simcha. She blares Jewish music and dances around the kitchen preparing food for all of us to share and love.”
Monty Fleisher’s late mother, Mattie Halpern, certainly should be lauded for the most meticulous of methodologies in her culinary kneidel pursuits.
Fleisher’s daughter, Debbie, recalls how her father used to tell stories about his childhood memories of this Pesach preparation. “When my bobba used to make kneidlach, the whole house had to be quiet because [according to Mattie] any loud or sudden noise would cause the kneidlach to flop. So they all had to take off their shoes and tiptoe around the house. They also had to open and close doors very quietly.”
The ironic outcome of this military matzah-meal drill: the kneidlach turned out “flat”, confesses her son.
Meanwhile, for the late Sonia “Shoshki” Saven, making kneidlach was a craft for which she had her own magic implements: an imposing black pot and two gleaming kochleffels brought all the way from the Mir shtetl in what was then Belarus.
Today, etched with the wear and care of more than half a century of kneidlach cookery, these items retain pride of place in the households of the generations that follow.
Indeed, her granddaughter, Jessica Goodman, recites the exact instructions Shoshki would give about their use: “The bigger the pot, the bigger the kneidlach” and “never measure with a table spoon, only an authentic kochleffel will do.”
Even as a teenager, Goodman would ask her grandmother to show her the recipe. It was an elaborate internship, for “there were never any precise measurements. It was always ‘use this size spoon, use a little bit of this, a little bit of that; feel the right texture’. It wasn’t just ‘follow the recipe and hope for the best’. It was a very tactile experience.”
The result was always so delicious that after the seder, “I used to eat her kneidlach for breakfast because they were so good,” laughs Goodman.
Another highlight of Shoshki’s culinary creations is one that resonates with the Chabad tradition. On the last day of Pesach, she would make “milk kneidlach”, a tradition the family still follows. “We make them in butter and in a milk broth. It’s actually really delicious,” Goodman declares, adding a caveat that perhaps it’s “only something an Ashkenazi Jew could love!”
Ultimately, no matter the variation, the kneidel has its own symbolic power in celebrating a legacy.
As Goodman suggests, “If you had to make a Jewish grandmother’s love tangible; if you had to associate it with an object, it would be a kneidel ball. It’s so hamish and traditional.”
SIDE BAR RECIPE
Bobbie Mish’s flop-proof kneidlach recipe
1 Tbsp schmaltz
Beat egg, schmaltz, and salt together. Add enough matzah meal so that you can just roll into balls. The mixture must be quite sticky. (You can place the mixture into the fridge and roll the kneidel balls when the mixture is cold and slightly hardened.)
Cook in salted boiling water for 20 minutes.
Each batch makes six kneidlach.
Secret tips from Bobbie Mish
• “The water has to be boiling from before you even think of starting to make them.”
• “Place the kneidlach in the pot one at a time, closing the lid in between.”
• “Don’t touch that pot again for 20 minutes; don’t you dare!”
• “Don’t put too many kneidlach in the pot; you need to give them room to swell.”
The never-ending voice
And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.
Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.
Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?
Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”
Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.
Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.
And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.
Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.
Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.
Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?
The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.
Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.
Memory versus history
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.
Exile is a state of being
In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.
Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.
Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.
Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.
Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?
Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.
Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.
Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.
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